Can I Truly Receive if I Believe there is ‘No Free Lunch’?

flower basketI was delighted twice this morning, with wonderful surprise gifts – in short succession of each other. I opened the front door, still sleepy eyed, and I saw on my garden bench a wonderful basket crafted out of a leaf. The basket had been artistically filled with a selection of dainty summer blossoms from our campus. I guessed who might have left it there and I texted my friend to thank her! Luckily it turned out my guess was correct. I then sat to meditate in the verandah and about an hour later when I opened my eyes, there on the table beside me was another surprise gift. It was a yummy bar of dark chocolate, which incidentally is the kind of chocolate I like the best! This time I could not even guess who the gift was from and at the time of writing this article I still do not know!chocolate

As I picked up the chocolate with gratitude and glee, I sensed that I was not able to truly receive it – the way I received the flower basket gift an hour back. Was it because I did not know who had left it for me? Was it because this one was food (bought from a shop), while the other came directly from nature (with no money involved)?

I wondered what it would take for me to be able to truly receive, anything and everything that the universe wanted to gift to me without judging it on the basis of whether it was hand picked from nature, or bought with money? I wondered if my own mental models and beliefs about receiving, about gifts, about transactions, and about money might be coming in the way? I remembered a passionate debate I had engaged in about a month earlier on pretty much the same topic – but this debate had been at a societal level rather than a psychological level.

We had been resting after a long day’s trek, sipping coconut water when a co-traveller had casually remarked, “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. I had heard this much quoted phrase several times before, and had also debated strongly about it during my college days as well during my days as an academic in a business school. However, on this particular evening, when I heard it, every cell in my body stirred up like cats bristles. It was as if my inner being was protesting – urging me to take a stand, and voice my opposition against this overused clique (that many have unfortunately started believing as a ‘truth’).

We had just re-emerged into civilization after two days spent in the wild forests of the western ghats. The ‘thinker’ in me was fully aware that we would eventually be paying for the lovely drink of the coconut water we were sipping. Yet, the spirit of the mountains, the trees, and the free flowing streams that I was still carrying in my energy system seemed to stand blatantly in non-alignment to the axiom of ‘no free lunch’. They seemed to tell me that our universe was an interconnected web of abundance that embodied an ethos where we would automatically be making our greatest contribution just through being our authentic selves (like a bumble bee that pollinates flowers just by following its natural instinct to suck nectar). As long as one was open to receiving, there were infinite lunches, gifts, and experiences to be savoured in the world.

My co-traveller who had made the original remark about ‘no free lunches’ and I soon got into a debate on the topic and I invited the other trekkers around to join as well. I proposed two alternate statements and asked everyone which statement their heart resonated with more. The two statements were,

Option a: There is no such thing as a free lunch
Option b: The planet is desiring to gift to us an abundant supply of free lunches

We started off by agreeing that this dialogue was not just about food and that we were using ‘lunches’ as a metaphor for experiences that nurture, satiate, and spark life in us. Interestingly quite a few people chose option a first and then switched to option b, and vice versa. Eventually most people converged towards concluding that while one statement (option b) appealed to them philosophically, the other (option-a) seemed to be the ‘practical reality’ they were witnessing. Some people said that both these statements were true in different contexts.

As our discussion progressed we used the metaphor of trees to marvel at how just by being true to her own inner nature (and purpose) a tree lands up feeding other creations quite effortlessly. We wondered about the possibility of a shared interconnected reality (and therefore an economy) where each one of us could become a contribution (and therefore a source of ‘free lunches’ to others) just by being true to our own inner nature (and authentic life purpose).

We also discussed some of the philosophical ideas behind upcoming movements like the ‘gift economy’ and ‘conscious capitalism’. We talked about the construct of money, the idea of barter and how some local communities are now experimenting with unique variations of the barter system. One of our co-trekkers narrated his experience with the ‘Seva Cafe’ and his also told us about groups that are increasingly using the internet to facilitate crowdfunding of and investment in non-profit ideas. The internet itself was discussed as a hub of generous ‘free lunches’ where knowledge and information was being shared with all for free.

One of the more skeptic trekkers in our group remarked, ‘this kind of a system can only work if there is a shift in everyone’s consciousness and for that we will need some new kind of dictatorship’. Our whole group started laughing at the irony of this comment and we wondered what could really bring about a shift in mass consciousness. Could there be methods or processes which would catalyze change in consciousness which did not involve any form of coercion or forced conversion?

I personally am of the opinion that this shift in consciousness is already under way. In fact I believe that is why we are even having these dialogues and discussions in the first place. In my view we need not try too hard to deliberately catalyze a shift in consciousness. Our own unhappiness and growing frustration with the current system of living and interacting (aka economy), will catapult us into a shift . Drawing a parallel from my own life, my deep unhappiness and frustration at work led me to study the meaning of work and then craft for myself a mode of working where the ‘work’ I do is now my best friend – a pillar of strength and an opportunity to contribute. Frustration is not always our enemy – indeed sometimes it might just be the harbinger of change.

As we walked back towards the nearest town, the co-traveller who had initially used the phrase, ‘There is no such thing as free lunch’, shook his head at me in seeming disbelief and asked, ‘have you ever studied microeconomics?’. The truth is that I have studied microeconomics not just once, but three times – and each time I have understood and related to it in a different way.

The first time I was exposed to microeconomics was while studying engineering in IIT Madras. At that time it was just a set of equations and rules for me and I accepted the ‘rules’’ of transaction and pricing like one would accept the law of gravity or electricity. I memorized the equations, used them to answer my exam questions, believed I had understood microeconomics.

My second rendezvous with this subject was while studying management at IIM Ahmedabad. This time, I spent more time pondering over questions like whether we truly were a species that was dumb enough to ‘value’ diamonds over water, just because the latter was less scarce? I started asking myself if this was an authentic form of ‘valuation’ in our hearts or more of a superficial valuation that we had either been socialized or brainwashed into. I looked at the giving and taking that occured in nature and I wondered if the supply and demand curves really needed to intersect? Was not nature just showering us with gifts each day and telling us ‘take whatever you need, whenever you need’?

The third time I studied microeconomics, was during my PhD at London Business School. This time however, I was lucky to be studying microeconomics at the same time as the philosophy of science. I now understood the propositions and equations that filled up the economics textbooks as desperate attempts by economists who wanted to understand and model the universe. However, rather than study it in all it’s complexity and shades of grey they had unwittingly limited their understanding to what could be represented it in the form of a mathematical equation, with or without dummy variables (pun very much intended)!. How else could one justify the foundational economic assumptions of ‘self interest’, ‘scarcity’, or ‘rationality’ when the real world is flooded with examples to the contrary.

So, coming back to my original question about the art of receiving, I wonder how one could truly receive if one has bought into the notion that ‘there is no free lunch’. The notion of no free lunch will make us view every gift as a bribe, every act of generosity as manipulation, every smile as networking, and every display of affection as self promotion. If we believe there is no free lunch how will we be able to truly receive anything – for even while receiving we might feel compelled to think about how we could pay back or ‘return the favour’. The field of economics has some captivating frameworks but let us be careful to not let those frameworks condition us out of our innate nature and birthright.

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